New app where user is anonymous stirs concerns

The Yik Yak app symbol, started by two 23-year-olds from the Atlanta area.
The Yik Yak app symbol, started by two 23-year-olds from the Atlanta area.
Posted: March 03, 2014

The call went out two Thursdays ago, tweeting its way around the hallways of Moorestown High School:

Everyone download Yik Yak.

The reference was to a new social-media application growing in popularity elsewhere in the country but still largely unknown here.

Its allure? For one thing, it's anonymous.

On Friday, posts started flying. It got ugly. Hurtful, even hateful, comments were made about specific students and faculty. Content included sexual references and crude remarks. There was even an inappropriate comment about a student who had died, but no clue to who wrote any of it - the perpetrators all hidden behind the cyber version of an Invisibility Cloak.

"It was mean-spirited, it was cruel, and it was cowardly," senior class president Cameron Pendino said. "It was not Moorestown's finest hour."

By late afternoon, district and high school administrators felt they had no choice but to suspend a district policy new this school year that allowed students to bring in smartphones and other devices to use during the school day. They wanted time to figure how to deal with the unpleasantness that found a forum on an innocent-sounding app they'd never before heard of.

That, however, would likely have changed soon.

Yik Yak may be the next new thing. At least, that's what the app's creators, Brooks Buffington and Tyler Droll, both 23 and from the Atlanta area, are working toward. Three months since Yik Yak's launch, they estimate they have amassed 185,000 users or, rather, yakkers.

Just last week, Buffington said, he e-mailed about 15 fraternities at Pennsylvania universities and colleges, including those in Philadelphia, to spread the word.

Pennsylvania "is a key point," Buffington said. "You guys have so many schools."

From here, they hope to use that critical mass to leapfrog into markets like New York and Massachusetts.

But the nastiness that erupted in Moorestown wasn't what the two Kappa Alpha brothers, both graduates of South Carolina's Furman University, envisioned when they shelved sure-thing futures for their dream of app design.

Droll was a week away from starting medical school, and Buffington was looking for finance jobs, when, Buffington said, they decided to give apps their full attention.

Yik Yak was born, an Internet space where communities, they hoped, would be created.

They designed it to be anonymous: no passwords, no profiles.

"Tyler wanted a place where people could broadcast their feelings without the social pressure," Buffington said.

They kept the app very local. Yik Yak users can communicate for free with up to 500 people in a one- or five-mile radius, depending on the number of users in the area. Fees are charged to reach more people.

In November, the friends rolled out Yik Yak at their alma mater and soon moved to other Southern schools, such as the University of Virginia, University of Alabama, Auburn, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest.

Like all things Internet, word got around, and the app cropped up elsewhere. Despite a warning on Yik Yak's website that it is only for people 17 or older, younger high schoolers started using it, too.

"We see a lot of cool things on the colleges," Buffington said. "High schoolers, from a maturity standpoint, they're not as cool."

Cool was the story of a Furman freshman who missed his flight home at the holidays and had no place to stay. He described his problem on Yik Yak, and a student he didn't know offered him his apartment.

Not cool? That would be Mobile, Ala.

The week before last, a 16-year-old and a 14-year-old from the area were charged with making terroristic threats, a felony. Apparently acting separately, each allegedly used Yik Yak to announce shootings at local high schools.

At one of the schools, parents were so alarmed they pulled their children out for the day, and the building was reduced to half occupancy. Some of the parents, according to a local press account, gathered to pray for the safety of their children - and for the app to disappear.

Mobile District Attorney Ashley Rich does not appear to be a fan of Yik Yak, whose creators cooperated with investigators. She noted the first two rules the app's creators list on their website exhort yakkers to not use Yik Yak to bully.

"They absolutely know it's being used that way if they are telling people not to use it that way," she said.

Upset parents asked Rich what they could do. She said she advised them to post their own "positive" messages, like shopping lists. They've done that and more, she said, including Bible verses and quotes about living productively.

Anonymous websites or apps - Yik Yak is not the first - can be appealing because of the privacy they allow, not because users intend to post nasty stuff. And cyberbullying and offensive talk have occurred on forums where the users are more identifiable.

But anonymity can be a bully haven.

"All digital environments are disinhibiting, but anonymous websites are even more disinhibiting," said Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University and a bullying and cyberbullying expert. "Yik Yak is particularly disinhibiting because you don't have to have a profile. You don't have to sign in."

Many young people think - incorrectly - that if a site or app is anonymous, they can't be traced, she said.

Aside from missing the use of their phones, quite a few Moorestown High students said they were offended by the nature of the infamous posts.

"I kind of think the kids who did it were cowards,"" said Alex Epstein, 18, a senior.

Bad as it was, interim Superintendent Timothy Rehm was heartened students came forward.

"I was very happy to hear our student leadership went to the principal and said they would like to do something about it," he said, noting the intent was to restore device policy at some point.

Last week, the administration and students met to discuss how to go forth, possibly to turn the episode into a teachable moment.

Pendino, 17, the senior class president, said there was talk of starting student-run forums on responsible technology use.

The consensus, he said, was that the app itself wasn't to blame, but rather "negative energy" and the way it was used, and that needed to be addressed.

"When this dies down," he said, "there's going to be another anonymous forum."

856-779-3893 @ritagiordano

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